‘King Charles’ Khabouth is expanding his restaurant empire in Miami

“In Toronto, it’s burgundy. In Miami, we have Flamingo Pink.

Handing me the color scheme, Charles Khabouth was showing his latest restaurant, Sofia, in the Miami Design District – a sister to his Sofia in Canada and one of five spots he now has in the Dionysian metropolis of Florida.

As I sat the other day on its pink patio, located inside a primo courtyard in what is now definitely Miami’s answer to Rodeo Drive, I admired the scenery: the upscale restaurant is at a few steps from the Tom Fords and the YSLs, back to the right in Bulgari, and is eclipsed by a ginormous, main dish glass sphere called Fly’s Eye Dome. I was also enjoying an easy afternoon stracciatelle. Cherry tomato, olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, ciabatta… and lots of Jonas Bro.

In this case, yes, Joe Jonas and his « Game of Thrones » wife, Sophie Turner, were sitting directly across from me, enjoying their Sofia with Aperol Spritz.

Somewhere in the metaphysical distance too? I could hear Gloria Estefan singing « Come on, shake your body, baby, do the conga. » No, really, I could. Khabouth’s new restaurant, as I learned, is where a restaurant Gloria owned before it closed.

“Nobody wanted to talk to us. Nobody.” Khabouth had started talking about his experience trying to open a place here in Miami more than 30 years ago when his empire was still in its infancy, and when he tried to travel the city with his collaborator from the era, Franco Prevedello, a renowned restorer of yesteryear. Rejected like Canadian rednecks! All these years later, he would personally woo Craig Robins, the genius who created the Miami Design District, and he was in. Even land the contract for events that take place in the wider yard.

It was the day before Art Basel Miami — America’s biggest art bacchanal — Khabouth was also telling me about some of the bookings expected at his spots. Something with Chanel. Van Cleef & Arpels. A bunch of galleries. So many dinners. « It’s going to be crazy. »

The restless restaurateur. A showman of hospitality. After opening (and closing) more than 40 clubs and joints during his decades-long rise – Toronto Life just once again put him on its annual list of the 50 most influential people – the 60-year-old Lebanese-Canadian (who slept in his car for a bit when he moved to Toronto as a boy) clearly shows no signs of slowing down. Is, in fact, laser-focused on a mirror empire in the south (where he kept a residence in a sleek Philippe Starck skyscraper for a decade, along with his Lamborghini).

The Toronto Snowbirds have been going to Miami forever, of course. Now they can pack a distinct deja vu, restaurant side too.

It all started with Byblos, his Eastern Med brand that Khabouth cloned into a beautiful home on bustling Collins Avenue about eight years ago. The post-pandemic era — and the new energy that has propelled Miami over the past two years — has brought renewed attention, however, with it choosing to open a new Amal here fairly recently. (A version of his popular restaurant on Bloor Street West, the latter, located in the elegant enclave of Coconut Grove, is his finest yet, in my opinion. The lighting, the design, the clientele: it all looked like something from a picture of Slim Aarons when I went there later.)

Other standalone Khabouth properties in Miami include Dalia inside the Gabriel South Beach Hotel, directly on Ocean Drive, and Level 6, a Spanish rooftop area atop Amal. phew. And, of course, he didn’t finish. Khabouth tells me he really wants to collaborate on a new Akira in Miami – a doubling of the destination Japanese restaurant that’s in his Bisha hotel in Toronto. Indeed, there is also talk of an expansive new deal in Las Vegas.

His head is in many different places at once. And his phone too. As we catch up at another point, he takes a call from his son, Charlie (who works with him), and asks, « How was Drake? » (Drake, it turns out, was at Amal in Toronto the night before, a place he’s a regular at.) This, because his phone also vibrates with other news: It turns out that Jonas and Turner have returned. for dinner last night in Sofia Miami (this time with their daughter). Bzzzz. Another text arrives: the niece of Domenico Dolce — from Dolce & Gabbana — was also there.

All the while, his eyes are everywhere. At one point, he worries that the avocado on a table is too brown in color. When he enters Level 6, he immediately pans the space and waves to a waiter: the lights are off at two tables in the back. Take care of it.

There are different beats in the cities he operates in now, of course. In Florida, in particular, there is a “season”, which affects staff and customer turnover: “Come June 1st, Miami dies”.

It also takes longer to build in Miami, and projects have a longer gestation period, Khabouth says. The large Hispanic demographic is another factor, naturally, and Khabouth says he tries to learn Spanish. These demographics manifest themselves in other ways, too: Consider that his Amal in Miami has much the same menu as Toronto’s, except for three particular dishes. And that’s because – unlike Toronto or Montreal – Miami doesn’t have special Lebanese butchers to make them.

We cover even more ground. He shows me a picture on his phone of him chopping onions at a McDonald’s when he was young, with curly hair and rosy cheeks. He reminds me of the 50th birthday party he once threw for Mick Jagger, at his former monster club Guvernment in Toronto. He talks about food: how he just ordered the new book by Yotam Ottolenghi (whom he admires) and the sanctity of certain dishes. « You can fuck with a lot of things but you can’t fuck with burrata, » he said, making me laugh.

However, does it keep its mojo for so many new ventures at once? This King Charles said to me, finally: “I am more excited now than before. That I never was. That’s what I do.

Shinan Govani is a Toronto-based freelance columnist covering culture and society. Follow him on Twitter: @shinangovani


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